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The Cisco kids

Chris Johnston finds a giant multinational corporation teaching British educators a thing or two about hi-tech learning for the future

Offer sixth-formers the chance to walk straight out of school into a job with a starting salary of up to pound;30,000 plus company car, and many will tear up that UCAS form and ask where they sign.

Some students are already doing just that: turning their backs on universities and colleges in favour of a highly practical qualification - earned at the same time as studying for A-levels - that is a ticket to a well-paid job.

They are the graduates of Cisco's Networking Academy, a pioneering body that has much to teach educators in all fields on such increasingly important subjects as motivating students, the value of online learning and taking a lead in teaching new skills.

Networks are the "plumbing" through which information travels around schools, offices and the Internet. And Cisco are the people who make them. So important are these bundles of wires and cables - Datamonitor Research predicts that by next year the networking market will be worth pound;5 billion in the UK alone - that Cisco has become one of the biggest companies in the world. Based in San Jose, California, the company employs 23,000 people worldwide, and before the recent stock market upheavals was valued at more than $400 billion. Competitors are always snapping at its heels, however, and part of its strategy for staying on top is the Networking Academy programme.

Demand from businesses for computer systems that will boost efficiency and launch them into the lucrative world of e-commerce has resulted in an acute shortage of people able to design and install networks. Research indicates there will be just over 2 million people working in IT in Britain by 2003, but even that will leave vacancies for another 330,000. Across Europe, the shortfall is expected to be 1.7 million.

Cisco's ambitious attempt to address this shortage is a rare example of industry taking the initiative on education, rather than waiting for schools and colleges to start producing students with the skills it needs. The company has been singled out by the Government's e-minister, Patricia Hewitt, as one of the few that is addressing the networking skills shortage. She says the academy programme is "an excellent example of how industry can improve the availability of skilled labour in the sector".

The academy was launched in the US in 1997, reached Europe a year later and now operates in 61 countries. In Britain, further education colleges were the first to join up, with schools following soon after. At the top of the ladder are three "area training centres": the University of Central England; Nescot - an FE college in Epsom, Surrey; and the Scottish Council for Educational Technology. These train lecturers and teachers from 50-plus regional academies, which in turn organise courses and training for up to 10 local academies.

Greensward technology college, in Hockley, Essex, was the first school to become a regional academy. Steve O'Neill, director of the college and regional co-ordinator of the Cisco project, says that 45 A-level students are taking the four-term, 280-hour networking course in their own time (during and after the school day). The number will grow to more than 70 with the next Year 12 intake.

Across Europe, about 8,000 young people are enrolled for the CCNA (Cisco Certified Networking Associate) qualification, and another 20,000 are expected to start training in the next academic year. The number studying around the world is more than 75,000.

All the learning materials are available online, allowing students to dip in and out whenever they have access to the Internet, be it at school, home or the local library. Steve O'Neill believes this has cross-curricular benefits for students. "We've had reports, not just from our own students but from some of our local academies, that the Cisco project's independent style of learning has enhanced their learning capabilities in other subjects, because the motivation to learn has transferred to other areas," he says.

Greensward student Cally Maciver says she finds the Cisco material easier to learn from than a teacher: "It's all there - you can read it and print it out and you don't miss anything. If you want to go back to something later, you've got it there." Online assessment is another innovative aspect of the programme. As well as removing the burden of marking from teachers, it also lets students know as soon as they have finished a test where they have gone wrong.

Running parallel to the theory are practical exercises where students work individually as well as in pairs or groups. In the first term they get a computer network up and running, and the tasks become progressively more sophisticated. They must pass a final exam after completing the course to obtain the industry-recognised CCNA.

Educators everywhere might learn something from Cisco about motivating students: Steve O'Neill says his pupils have been known to take exams voluntarily at 10pm.

In some deprived parts of the US, Cisco is said to be the only reason some students turn up for school. Not that they are confined to the school buildings. As part of their work experience, students from Parkers Prairie high school in Minnesota wired the local nursing home and "halfway house", designing the routes for cables and networking in 10 rooms. The network is being used to keep records, generate bills and send information to government departments.

Students at Mission high school in San Francisco are even being paid to help run the school's computer system. Karla, a senior, and Rosa, a junior, work five hours a week and are paid $8.50 (pound;5.35) an hour to maintain the 240 computers, 12 printers and network.

The idea of paying students for their work has yet to cross the Atlantic, so why are British pupils so enthusiastic about learning how to put computer networks together? "They can see a goal at the end of it that is realistic," says Steve O'Neill. "And job opportunities are there because networking is one of the fastest-growing areas in the IT industry."

Four Greensward student helped set up and run a network at the Bett technology exhibition in London earlier this year and were offered jobs by exhibitors. But Cally Maciver and fellow student Adrian Risidore say the group might opt instead to form their own company with four University of Central England students they worked with at Bett.

The Cisco programme seems to be a win-win situation for all involved. Cisco benefits by generating more potential employees with the skills it needs, while students obtain marketable qualifications. It might even be a solution for schools suffering from falling rolls - a number of sixth-formers switched to Greensward from other Essex schools just to take the Cisco course.

Cisco Networking Academy programme: contact Sandra Golighty on 020 8756 8000or visit Education and Economic Development Initiative:

God's network

Take two London churches, a bank of computers, a group of poorly skilled black children and Cisco's Academy scheme and you have an unexpected but very successful combination.

The Black Education and Economic Development Initiative has set up pilot schemes at Freedom's Ark in Tottenham, north London, and at another church in Mile End, east London. Compaq has donated equipment and other companies, such as Cable and Wireless, have offered to help.

Churches are an ideal location for such centres, says Nims Obunge, pastor of Freedom's Ark, as they are largely unused during the week and are less threatening than college or school. The centres will also offer cr ches to make it easier for mothers to study.

As well as trained tutors, members of the congregation will also be helping out. Yaw Adansi-Pipim, leader of the Freedom's Ark youth group and a computer-literate A-level student, is one volunteer. He thinks it is a "brilliant idea" to use churches as learning centres; his co-leader, Seun Harper, is considering taking the Cisco course.

If the London trial is successful, Pastor Obunge says as many as 600 churches nationwide could follow suit. Not surprisingly, the Government is monitoring this grassroots attempt at tackling social exclusion.

The centres have generated a huge amount of interest - more than 3,000 people want to take courses at the two churches when they begin next month.

Dion Croom, the initiative's operations director, says the huge demand for those with networking and other related skills is good news for people from ethnic minorities. "There is no colour on the Internet," he says.

Schools that are Cisco regional academies include: Ashby grammar school, Ashby de la Zouch, Leicestershire

Bacon's CTC, London

Collingwood college, Camberley, Surrey

Deacon's school, Peterborough

Dixons CTC, Bradford

Duston upper school, Northampton

George Spencer technology college, Nottingham

Greensward college, Hockley, Essex

Harlington community school, Hayes, Middlesex

Hugh Christietechnology college, Tonbridge, Kent

Holmer Green upper school, High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire

Jeff Joseph Sale Moor technology college, Sale, Cheshire

Leigh CTC, Dartford, Kent

Lynn Grove VA high school, Great Yarmouth, Norfolk

Maricourt high school, Liverpool

Newham sixth form college, London

Philip Morant school, Colchester, Essex

The Ridings high school, Bristol

To find regional or local academies in your area, see comeduemea

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